Down On The Farm is a series where we go deeper with the Chicago Cubs minor league affiliates. We'll look into operations and cool stories, as we sit down with the people who work there. Today, we tell the story of the South Bend Cubs, a remarkable turnaround of a minor league franchise.
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of sitting down on the phone with South Bend Cubs team President Joe Hart. Joe has been with South Bend since 2012. The team bottomed out shortly before he came on board, which led to his hiring. He's overseen drastic developments with the team, going through a strong rebuilding effort that culminated with the MILB "Franchise of the Year" Award. It's a remarkable story that echoes the Chicago Cubs rebuild from 2011, to winning it all in 2016.
Joe Hart graduated from West Virginia University in 1996, with a degree in Sports Management. As someone who grew up in Pennsylvania, he became a regional Cubs fan, thanks to nationwide telecasts on WGN. He loved baseball, and followed his dream professionally, as he took jobs in Tennessee, Texas, New York and Florida, before coming to South Bend.
When Joe was 25, working at one of his first jobs in spring training, he saw a couple guys in the clubhouse shaking hands with an older guy, and Joe realized, "That's Willie Mays!" THE LEGEND WILLIE MAYS. And did he Say Hey? NO! He was frozen, and it's been a major regret for him since. Despite this, Joe's allowed this event to motivate him and pushed him into bigger and better things. No longer does he freeze up when the spotlight finds it's way over. Instead, he now takes challenges head on.
In 2011, the South Bend Silverhawks were a dying minor league franchise. They finished the season with only 112,795 tickets sold. The Arizona Diamondback affiliate had a lackluster fan base and was struggling financially. Ownership was a group of 51 guys who passionately wanted to keep the team in South Bend, but they didn't have the business savvy. Enter Andrew Berlin, a Chicago businessmen who had both the acumen to run a franchise and the passion for sports.
Andrew Berlin wanted to rebuild baseball in South Bend. He knew that he had to focus on both customer service and upgrade the facilities. But he already had a business he was running in Chicago. He needed a guy to run the day to day. Mr. Berlin offered Joe the chance to spearhead a major rebuilding of a franchise, a challenge and opportunity that few get. So in January 2012, Joe Hart accepted the challenge and returned to his Midwest roots and became South Bend's new team President.
The best ideas are often simple ones. Now, what do you think of when you attend a baseball game? How many people thought of a hot dog? That's one of the first things that Joe and ownership thought of too. "We like to say we have the best hot dogs in minor league baseball. In fact we saw that the Fenway Frank was the best ranked hot dog, so we actually fly those in and that's what we serve at the park," Joe said. (Editor's note: don't worry Wrigley faithful, these are a mustard only breed of hot dogs)
They also worked drastically to improve the fan experience on a more individual basis. Joe described,
"When you come out here, it's our job to thrill and wow you. If we are just a satisfactory experience, then we failed our fans. I can't control the score of the game, but I can control how you are treated by our employees".
Ownership, along with Joe, recognized that the fans that attended the South Bend games were die hard baseball fans. There aren't many Diamondback fans in Indiana and with the teams proximity to Chicago there was natural competition from the Cubs and White Sox. They had to make a day at the ballpark more than just about the game. "We just felt we needed to take the path of whatever we're doing, let's make it all spectacular."
With a highly motivated owner, the team put $32 million into renovations at their facilities at the 25 year old Four Winds Field at Coveleski Stadium. They gave the stadium a modern day facelift, updating fan amenities making it not just a game, but an experience.
This "make it all spectacular" philosophy began to pay off almost immediately. Attendance grew sharply, and the interest in the team was on the rise.
But there was one big piece that the South Bend Silverhawks wanted: to become a Cubs affiliate. They got the opportunity when their agreement with the Diamondbacks expired at the end of the 2014 season. Coincidentally the Cubs agreement was up with the Kane County Cougars, so ownership asked the Cubs ownership if they'd be willing to come to South Bend to discuss becoming an affiliate. "We just laid it all out for them. We had heard they were all about the players and having first class facilities, so our presentation for them said we would build a brand new facility, renovate the locker rooms, we'll put in natural grass field and take out of the artificial turf".
It worked. The Cubs signed a player development deal with South Bend. The South Bend Silverhawks became the South Bend Cubs. This gave attendance an extra boost as it increased by nearly 33% the following year. It was clear there were a lot of Cubs fans in Indiana who enjoyed having an affiliate close to home. And when they attended the park they found first class facilities and customer service. The swap to the Cubs allowed baseball in South Bend to take the next big step forward, and one year later, it all came together.
In 2015, the South Bend Cubs won the John J. Johnson's President's award, which is the "Franchise of the Year" award for all of minor league baseball. A team wins by being nominated by peers from your local league, then selected from a panel who evaluate the nominees and choose a winner. Out of 160 teams, there's just one annual winner. It is the equivalent of winning the World Series as a minor league executive. And South Bend won it all, just four years after the low point, and only 3 years into Joe's tenure. Joe might have lacked the nerves to shake Willie Mays' hand when he was younger, but he learned from it, and took the bull by the horns.
Winning the President's Award was the cherry on top of the sundae. The team had not only stabilized, but thrived. The Cubs had become as a fixture of South Bend. In 2019, they won the Midwestern league Championship, further cementing their status as a must-see attraction in the area.
Great things are afoot in South Bend. If you are local to Chicago, I encourage you to join me on a road trip to see the South Bend Cubs when we get baseball back this year. Fenway Franks are on me!
Thanks to Joe Hart, for sitting down to tell the story of South Bend and for providing all these great pictures. Thank you also to the Cubs DNA staff, namely Brooke and Tina for their assistance with this article.